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1834-1844: A Decade of Great Change for U.S. Gold Coinage
By Doug Winter

The decade between 1834 and 1844 was the beginning of the modern era at the United States mint. The second half of this decade was especially interesting. A number of experiments and acts of legislation provided some of most attractive and popular issues in the history of American coinage.

A combination of factors occurred in the early to mid 1830’s that led to these design changes and the introduction of new mints and new denominations. Large quantities of gold were discovered in North Georgia and western North Carolina in the early 1830’s. This led to the establishment, in 1834, of branch mints in Charlotte, New Orleans and Dahlonega. These mints opened in 1838 and by the end of the 1830’s, all three were producing gold coins.

An important technological advance was the introduction of the steam press in 1836. Coins were now able to be struck using a close collar which allowed for a thicker edge and a more precise diameter and sophisticated designs. It also meant that the quaint, “folk art” designs of John Reich were to be replaced with more modern, technologically savvy renderings.

Christian Gobrecht was named the new Mint Engraver in 1835, after the exodus of John Reich. Gobrecht was a talented artisan whose skill enabled the Mint to modernize its gold coinage. Beginning in 1838, he attempted to create a uniform Liberty Head design for all three of the current gold denominations. This design would remain, with minor changes, until 1907.

One of the first assignments that Gobrecht was given was to design a new gold dollar. A small number of experimental pieces were produced in gold (Judd-67) as well as in a gold alloy, silver and copper. Despite an attractive design, this experiment did not produce any immediate results and the gold dollar denomination was shelved until 1849.

As more and more gold was discovered in the south, the importance of the yellow metal in coinage increased. Conversely, large discoveries of silver in Mexico and South America meant that the price of gold bullion rose. The Classic Head quarter eagle was introduced in 1834 and it featured a design by William Kneass and John Reich. The weight of these quarter eagles was reduced to 258 grains (from 270) and the diameter was lessened from nineteen millimeters to 17.5. Most importantly, mintage figures rose dramatically. Between 1829 and 1834 around 25,000 quarter eagles were struck. In 1834 alone, over 112,000 of the new Classic Head pieces were produced.
Gobrecht’s experimentation with the Classic Head design began in 1835 when the head was made taller. In 1836, there are no less than three variations of the head: the original design of 1834, the taller head of 1835 (based on Kneass’ original design) and the head of 1837 (with the hair distant from the sixth star) which was actually executed by Gobrecht.

Gobrecht’s experimentation went a step further in 1838. The Philadelphia quarter eagles of this year are noticeably different in appearance than those dated 1835-1837. The 1838 issues have a very broad obverse border, smaller stars and a new variation of the Classic Head portrait that is modeled on the original Kneass design of 1834 but with a taller, differently positioned head.

Production at the branch mints began in 1838 with the striking of 7,880 quarter eagles at the Charlotte mint. The design of the head was similar to that seen on the Philadelphia quarter eagles of this year. The most notable overall difference is a very pronounced doubled obverse rim that is different from that seen on any other quarter eagle of this era. The Mint made the decision to place the mintmark on the obverse and on the 1838-C it is prominently doubled.

In 1839, the head was redesigned–yet again–on the Philadelphia issues. The back and upper curls are different in shape and the stars are larger. In addition, the obverse denticles are longer and finely defined. The reverse is the same as seen on 1836.

Three branch mints coined quarter eagles in 1839. The 1839-C coins are found with an 1839/8 overdate and an 1839/39 repunched date. The mintmark is still prominently displayed on the obverse but it is further to the left than on the 1838-C. In addition, the denticles are much longer and finer in 1839.

Both the 1839-D and 1839-O issues have a distinctive appearance. The former has very long, boldly detailed denticles on the obverse and reverse. The latter has a more narrow border with much smaller, more rounded denticles. The 1839-O is found with two major varieties. One has a high date with a widely spaced fraction on the reverse while the other has a low date with a closely spaced fraction.

Why are there so many varieties known? Part of the reason may have to do with the Mint’s embrace of new technology. The steam press and close collar were complicated to use and it took a while to learn how to best employ them. And the original Kneass Classic Head design did not strike very well. Most Classic Head quarter eagles show weakness at the centers, due to the fact that the high point of the obverse was opposite the high point on the reverse. The mint was constantly tweaking this design in order to get better struck coins. As evidenced by the results through 1839, this did not work and the fact that Classic Head gold coins are nearly always poorly struck was probably the major reason why the Liberty Head design was introduced.

The new Christian Gobrecht Liberty Head design was first used on eagles in 1838. It made its way to half eagles in 1839 and quarter eagles in 1840.

A very noticeable change was the moving of the mintmark to the reverse. It is not known whether this was done for aesthetic reasons or to facilitate better striking.

Other changes can be seen on quarter eagles from the 1840 to 1843 era but they are more subtle. From 1840 to 1842, date sizes from all four mints are tiny. In 1843, large and small date varieties are found on Charlotte and New Orleans strikings. Philadelphia quarter eagles from this year are found with only a large date while Dahlonega quarter eagles are seen only with a small date. Mintmark sizes vary in 1843 as well with large and small punches seen on all three branch mint issues.

Beginning in 1844, the quarter eagle design becomes more settled. Date and mintmark sizes are more consistent. Why did the wholesale changes of the first four years suddenly stop? One would have to suspect this was due to the Mint finally being satisfied with the designs and reaching the decision that these were the most suitable for producing good strikes and were the most difficult to counterfeit.

There are a number of varieties seen on the Classic Head half eagles but not as many as on the quarter eagles. In 1834 there are two distinct head design and the 4 in the date is seen with both plain and crosslet varieties. In 1835 there are three varieties of head and both large and small dates. When Gobrecht became more involved in the design process in 1836, three distinct head types can be seen. The design becomes more uniform in 1837 and stays the same through 1838.

The Mint was more successful in striking the half eagle of this design than the quarter eagle. While most Classic Head half eagles show some weakness at the centers, they are much better detailed than their smaller counterparts. The fact that the mint was able to successfully strike this design in the larger format suggests that this may have been part of the motivation behind the constant tinkering with the quarter eagle.

Branch mint half eagles were struck at Charlotte and Dahlonega in 1838. These issues each have a very distinctive appearance and both show the mintmark on the obverse. The 1838-C has very narrow borders with tiny denticles, weakness at the centers and a loss of detail on the eagle’s feathers due to over-lapping of the dies. The 1838-D has a broader border with distinctive denticles, sharper detail at the centers and more complete feathers on the reverse.

In 1839 Gobrecht’s coronet head design began on the half eagle denomination. It featured a liberty head with a very curved neck truncation and the mintmark displayed prominently on the obverse. This design was deliberately made to be similar to the 1838 eagle, as it was planned that all three gold denominations would ultimately have a similar appearance.

The design was modified in 1840. The truncation of Liberty’s neck was no longer so curved and the mintmark was moved to the reverse. The mint experimented considerably with diameter and date size in 1840. Some issues are seen with a so-called Broad Mill which has a diameter that is approximately 23 millimeters. Others have a Narrow Mill that is around 21 millimeters. The edge reeding has different varieties as well with some showing a very fine configuration and others more coarse in shape.

The next areas of experimentation seen on half eagles are date and lettering size. In 1842, half eagles from three of the four mints (all except New Orleans) have large date and small date varieties. The Philadelphia and Dahlonega coins dated 1842 also have small and large letter varieties on the reverse. This continued into 1843 when New Orleans experimented with date and letter size variations. In 1844, the mint decided that date and letter sizes would be large.

Again, we can assume that these experiments from the 1840’s were done primarily to decide what would be the best design to enable half eagles to be well struck and hard to counterfeit. The design that was adapted in 1844 went basically unchanged (with the exception of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST being added in 1866) until 1907.

After being discontinued in 1804, the eagle was resurrected in 1838. This was the “crown jewel” of gold denominations which is why it was the first to be completely redesigned by Christian Gobrecht. His initial design featured a Liberty Head with an extremely curved neck truncation on the obverse with the left side of the neck placed over the 18 and the right side just past the right side of the final star. The reverse had large letters. This design was continued for part of 1839 but was changed.

The new design featured a less curved neck and a differently positioned head. The left side of the neck was now far to the left of the date while the right side was well to the left of the final star. The date shows a slight curve. The reverse lettering was reduced in size.

The design found on 1838 and the first group of 1839 eagles did strike well so it cannot be argued that the change was made to facilitate quality. My guess is the decision was aesthetic in nature as the shape of Liberty’s neck and its position relative to the date and stars appears “odd.” The reconfiguration made in 1839 makes the obverse look more balanced but not perfectly so.

A final, subtle change to the eagle design was made in 1840. The date was made straight while slight variations can be seen on the neck curls. Small and Large Date varieties are found on the 1842 eagles from Philadelphia but there are no other changes during this era.

I regard the 1834-44 decade as one of the most interesting and under-researched eras of American numismatics. The collector who wishes to focus on types has a number of options while the variety collector has access to an almost unlimited group. Most importantly, this is extremely fertile ground. There has been little research done on gold coins from this era and many new discoveries are, no doubt, waiting the dedicated collector.

For more information on United States gold coins dated between 1834 and 1844 please contact Doug Winter via email at dwn@ont.com.

 



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